A new streaming service is trying to be the Broadway equivalent of Netflix. Offering over a hundred plays and musicals, BroadwayHD launched two weeks ago with the possibility to transform theatergoing. Instead of heading to New York or London for a night of high art, you can stream theatrical performances for $14.99 per month or $169.99 a year — roughly what it costs to attend a play even if you live a subway ride away from midtown Manhattan.
Sean Hutchinson: What was the genesis of the project?
Stewart F. Lane: The idea’s been germinating for decades as we’ve seen technology increase. We’ve seen people try and shoot Broadway shows, they’ve done cable, and I’ve been involved with some of that myself over the years. But with the rules of the game changing and the technology catching up to us, I said, “You know, there are enough platforms out there and enough knowledge that we can reach and spread the Broadway word out there.”
Bonnie Comley: Stew and I have been involved in these projects since 1991, and where they originated has changed. A lot of that is due to where people thought there was an audience. So originally, Japan Satellite Broadcasting wanted to broadcast shows in Japan because they always thought that Broadway was high art. About 10 years ago Peter Gelb saw streaming coming into the entertainment sphere and said, “How do we get people into movie theaters?” He was one of the first working at Sony to do limited runs of live feeds of concerts. Then he took that same concept and went to the Metropolitan Opera and said “How do we get opera to more people?” So that’s basically where the moviegoing experience came from, and Stew and I then jumped on that.
With the ones that we’ve done over the years, everybody always said, “You should do this with more shows! Why don’t you do this?” But economically, the business wasn’t really there. It was so hit or miss, and more often a miss on the financial end of it. So we sort of looked and saw everybody loves this, so there must be a business in there somewhere. We looked and saw the world going to streaming.
Once you had the idea in your mind, where did you go from there?
BC: Over the last three or four years we’ve been aggregating all this content and scooping it up and saying, “Here we go.” What’s taken so long is clearing the underlying rights to these older archival pieces, because when they were shot there was no such thing as streaming. So it’s going back and finding a fair and equitable distribution and going back and putting it all in one place.
Our magic number was 100. We started just two weeks ago with 120, and we said, “OK, now let’s layer on new things.” Some of the new things will be licensing other existing material and some of them are going out and shooting newer pieces. We launched, we have over 120 titles, we’re licensing other stuff out there, and now we’re looking at the new stuff and what’s coming down the line before it even opens on Broadway as something we can shoot.
Did you want BroadwayHD to replace the experience of seeing a show on Broadway?
SL: Let me make it clear, we’re not trying to complete with Broadway. We’re tying to enhance the experience and show what Broadway could be to the rest of the world. We simply want to show people the Broadway experience from the comfort of their own home.
What would you say to skeptics who think that theatrical productions can’t translate to not just the big screen, but also on your TV at home?
BC: We’re not trying to replace theater. What we’re doing is trying to extend it to people who either can’t get here due to geography or economics or some sort of health problem where they just can’t get to New York or if you just can’t get to New York at the time these shows are here.
I think it’s like a sporting event. They’re both live events. With sports it’s a very different experience when you go to a hockey game or a basketball game as opposed to watching it on TV! Both experiences can be really fun and rewarding, so that’s kind of where we’re at.
Our first choice is to go there live. If we could we’d bring everybody into the theater and everybody would come and see a live show, but that’s not the case! The theater only holds a certain amount of people, it’s only at certain times, and not everybody can get there. So how do you engage all those people the rest of the time when they’re not here? And that’s what we’ve got; it’s a platform for them now.
SL: I also believe the viewing habits of people have changed so radically in the last 10 years. What we’re doing is not a movie — we’re catching a live performance in real time. Because the public is used to seeing things now on iPads and what not, that the feeling of watching it live is that more thrilling. They’re not expecting a movie, but they’re expecting something like this experience that we can offer.
You mention that you want to branch off into new things. But if you’re going for old material, is there a particular quality of material you’re going for? Would you stream performances that aren’t HD?
BC: Originally our mission was to do all Broadway, all in HD, all in front of a live audience. Then we started to go out and look for this content and said, “This is awesome,” but it was shot in SD. We didn’t want to exclude those pieces, so we put them on our site and there’s a disclaimer to remind you that it’s something in SD.
But I think most of the people appreciate that it was captured at that moment. It’s like, “Oh my gosh it’s Meryl Streep in one of her first performances!” Who really got to see that? People appreciate it for that and new things going forward.
SL: It’s timeless. One of my favorite pieces we have is Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies. It was an amazing production. This was really authentic. These guys were trained by people who worked at the Cotton Club! And to watch that, it’s something you cannot recreate today. It’s something special.
Are you going to continue to offer different productions of the same shows as you expand?
BC: Yes, because there’s something special about the appetite for revivals in hardcore theater-going audiences. In the movie business it’s so rare to see a revival that it makes news. It’s like every couple of years they’re doing a remake of something. We’re used to prequels, we’re used to sequels in the movie business, but they’re not used to them redoing something.
But on Broadway people just love to see these stories retold and reinvented. We all know the story of Romeo and Juliet. We have about three different ones on our site, and people are binging and watching one right after another! One’s in period costume, one’s in contemporary costume…
BC: But that’s the thing. You know the story, but it’s part of the magic of how you told it differently so it feels like something totally different again.
Do you see this as a tool for people casually interested in Broadway to maybe convert them, or would you say this should cater to tried-and-true Broadway fans only?
BC: We were surprised with when we went out and tried this. At first we thought it’s just us and two other people who did this. But then of course the BBC has been doing this for years and Channel 13 here in New York too! For years it probably was just that limited audience but now with the Broadway brand becoming global, people are saying I missed these things and I want to get to see them.
Even the people here in New York. There’s about 30 shows that open a year and some of them close within a too short period of time. So this is another thing that our site will do. Sometimes it’s so expensive to run these shows, and they just have to close early. You get those mega hits and there’s these other things that are terrific as well, but they just can’t run long enough. So what we’re trying to do is capture those too.
Do you ideally want to have first-run Broadway shows too as well as smaller productions?
BC: Our goal is Broadway. We want to have it on a Broadway stage, in front of a live audience, in HD or 4K: That’s the main goal. But there are other things that are done off-Broadway or regionally that have Broadway-caliber actors or performers or writers or composers. So we’re looking at those pieces as well. So like Stew said, the technology is here, so you can do these things.
And we’ve spent so much time over the last couple years of aggregating all this content into one place and have it be worthy of a platform and have people take a look at it and ask what’s next. So what we’re doing now is going forward and saying, “Here’s the platform for everybody, what is next?” And it’s not just up to me and Stew. It’s a multibillion dollar industry, and they have been on board with this. But I think now they’re sort of looking at it again and saying we’re blazing the trail, charting the path for saying where it goes and how it works.
With the website we will be able to say these people are interested because even Stew and I, we’re so close to it, we’ve been in the theater business for over 40 years and we’re both members of the Broadway League. Is this just us? Are we the only ones that love this stuff? You never know until you put it out there and even within two weeks our colleagues are saying this is amazing. Then we say I guess we’re not the only ones.
SL: In truth, there’s an audience that has been growing out there for this theater content where you look at movies like Pitch Perfect and successful shows like Glee and even Smash on NBC. There is an appetite out there that pulls for people to share the theater experience backstage and onstage on a smaller scale.
You can only stream the shows through the site as of right now. Will you develop an app?
BC: We’re already doing it, but there has to be something there. You don’t want to have an app that’s nothing more than the website. It has to have some sort of added feature to prove why you need the app instead of just watching it on my computer or Chromecast or Apple TV. It has to be something else and I think that’s part of what we’re trying to figure out right now, is what is that ‘something else’ as we develop it.
Do you think BroadwayHD would include movie musicals or adaptations as well, or do you wanted to solely focus on stage productions?
BC: We’ve talked about that. Our core content is live in front of an audience; stage plays and musicals. But we have been looking at some of the other pieces just like the ones in SD. At launch we’re saying that’s what we are, but we’re actually doing some behind-the-scenes and red carpet stuff, so it’s more brand compatible material. It is of interest to the same people that love the stage plays.
Now that you’ve launched, what’s the next step for you now to build on that foundation of content?
SL: We’re adding more material to it every week. We’ve been negotiating deals in the pipeline and licenses are being cleared as we go along.
BC: Now it’s just building on the content base that we have. So this is the first layer and we’re going out and licensing new material and shooting new material. One of the ones that we’ve already done in partnership with HBO is Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill with Audra McDonald, which was a historic Tony Award-winning performance. It’ll go to HBO first, then we’ll get it.
We also want to share what we’ve learned along the way — here’s our pitfalls already, don’t go that way, etc. It’s getting the industry to go down the path with us. It’s a huge powerful group of smart people that are passionate about live theater, just like us.